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"I know Puccini as well as I know John Lee Hooker," he continues.
American soul, distilled from Italian opera.

"I'm being somewhat facetious, but I was always personally attracted to dramatic music--Ravel, Rachmaninoff. I can listen to Rachmaninoff and I'm glued to the chair."

Ragavoy, collaborating with Berns, had more success with Aretha Franklin's sister Erma in 1967 when they cut "Piece of My Heart." Erma Franklin never shone quite that way again, as far as I can tell, but for two minutes and 40 seconds she's immersed in an exquisitely delicate yet powerful anthem. Her pauses alone are sublime. When Janis Joplin took a run at the same song several months later, backed by Big Brother and the Holding Company, she got bogged down. It's a sludgy record.

"There's a very simplistic explanation," Ragavoy says. "Erma's record is performed by studio musicians who are just incredible, combined with the fact you have great background singers, great everything, period. There is not a wasted quarter note--it all means something. When you deal with these wonderful musicians in New York, or Nashville, that's a breed very few people are aware of; they're great executors of the material. As opposed to Big Brother, and most bands, period, [who are] lame musicians for the most part...Half these records are made because they think it's a fucking party. Big Brother, you hear it, it's raw, it's sloppy, and even though it was a hit, it's really a shame--although [Joplin] sure sang the hell out of it.

"Janis was largely influenced by R&B, but my own personal opinion about that particular time in musical history is, there were a lot of white singers who loved R&B and tried to imitate it, and they made this terrible mistake of thinking if you sing loud and shout, that's soul. All you have to do is listen to Marvin Gaye, or Hooker, for that matter, and you know that's not true. Janis was not the only one--there were lots of singers, male and female, who felt they were obliged to scream until the veins popped out of their necks and that was R&B."

I wonder what Ragavoy would have done with Joplin if someone brought her to him in '67 instead of Erma Franklin.

"I might have turned her down," he says.
Ragavoy was a perfectionist, perhaps, but wasn't alone in seeing Joplin as something other than or less than a recording artist. Here is record producer John Simon, as quoted by Myra Friedman, talking about Joplin and Big Brother:

"I always thought they were a great performance band, but I didn't think they made it as a recording band. I liked seeing them; I liked the excitement in the audience, but there was a time when what was music and what the public thought was music were very far apart, to my way of thinking. The drugs! That's how Janis Joplin could happen in the first place. Everyone's mind was fried! Look, they made a lot of people happy. That's important and it counts, and it shouldn't be held against them that they couldn't make music! They had a cult and a following, and as a San Francisco phenomenon, they were in their element and then...well...for some probably sociological reason, [Columbia Records head] Clive Davis forced them to make a record."

Ragavoy and Joplin met once. She was in New York, performing at Madison Square Garden shortly after her version of "Piece of My Heart" came out, when one of her producers called Ragavoy and said Joplin would love to meet him. He could have gone to see her backstage, but he invited her to his recording studio, the Hit Factory.

"She walked in and--I never really was one for beads and Nehru jackets, anything that was a uniform; I had on my Brooks Brothers navy blue blazer and gray pants and a pair of loafers. So Janis walks in and looks at me, and says, 'You're Jerry Ragavoy?' She couldn't believe it; I didn't fit the image."

Undaunted, Joplin decided to cut out the middleman and asked Ragavoy to write a song for what proved to be her last album, Pearl. She'd phone periodically to check on its progress, Ragavoy says. "One time she called and it was very noisy in the background," he told Goldmine. "I asked her what was going on.

"She said, 'Oh, we're havin' a party here to celebrate this new tattoo I got on my tit. Why don't you come over, honey?'

"I said, 'Well, Janis, I'm in New York and you're in California.'
" 'That's OK,' she said, 'it'll be going on for three more days. Take your time, baby.' "

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Robert Meyerowitz